Why I don't care if my students pass the AP exam

 As educators, it is easy to get caught up in teaching to the test.  As AP teachers especially, this is incredibly difficult to not focus our efforts solely on students passing their AP exam in May.  In this blogpost, I write about why I don't care if my students pass the AP exam, and what goals I do have for my students instead.
This year was my first year taking on AP Biology.  I've previously written an overview of what I've learned in the first year and some helpful tips, such as attending an AP Summer Institute.  At my summer institute, my instructor really drilled in something that set the tone for the rest of my year teaching AP Bio - and that was to not care if my students passed the AP exam or not. 

I know this is a bold statement to make publicly, and hopefully you will hear me out before I get derailed in the comments, but I truly mean this when I say it.  I have found that it is really easy to get discouraged teaching this class and to feel like you are failing your students if your goal is to get the students to pass the exam at the end of the year so that they can earn college credit.  Of COURSE this is what we all desire for our students.  I know especially when I was in public school that a LOT of students who take AP classes do take them to save money when they get to college, so of course we want to see them successful.  However it is so easy to feel defeated and have a lot of the joy sucked out of teaching this course if you spend the entire year teaching for the test.  I experienced it first hand when I referenced my pacing guide in November and realized I was already 3 weeks "behind schedule" in content coverage.  

It is hard to accept (especially for a recovering perfectionist like myself,) but you will NEVER get through all of the content in a meaningful way if you attempt to cover it ALL.  It is just simply impossible, unless you have your students for 1.5 hours every day, ALL YEAR.  (I unfortunately only see my students every day for 50 minutes.) This course covers TWO semesters of biology content, plus labs, potentially earning students 8-10 college credits.  NONE of the other regular AP exams do this (the only other ones that come close to this many credits are Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Spanish Literature and Culture.)

Because of this, instead of setting a goal of having all of my students pass the AP exam this year, I set more manageable goals that will benefit my students in the LONG run, FAR beyond the May exam.  Instead of setting a goal for all students to pass the exam (I call that my bonus goal), I set the goal of every student ending the year having acquired certain skills necessary for success in college courses.  I defined these skills as such: 
  • Scientific literacy: ability to create, analyze, and refute articles, statistics, graphics, and scientific claims in a variety of written and expressive forms; read and use information provided in textbooks and other forms of writing in order to make claims and defend those claims with evidence from literature
  • Scientific communication: mastery of lab report and research paper writing, verbal expression of knowledge, and visual representations of knowledge
  • Student autonomy: identify weaknesses, communicate questions, and build relationships with teachers; discern best studying, note-taking, and organizational strategies
I made these goals clear to my students (and their parents) from day 1 of my course.  It's made teaching this class so much more enjoyable when these goals are the lens through which I run the course - not just the 200 page curriculum framework.  These goals give me the flexibility to slow down and dive deeper into the topics that my students really get interested in.  They've given me more motivation to teach an inquiry-based class to increase student autonomy and critical thinking skills, even though it takes twice as long to get through a topic than if I just simply lectured.  Best of all, it sets my students up for success in other areas outside of their lives than my class and my AP exam.  See this email I received from one of my students this year after she got her ACT score back: 
Emails like this (and hearing from old students who are now in college and crushing it) are what motivate me to forget teaching for the AP exam or the EOC exam in my freshmen biology course and to focus on what really matters - equipping my students with the skills they need to be successful in the real world - far outside the bounds of my classroom and the pages of a test booklet. 

What are your goals for the students in your classes?  I'd love to hear in the comments below!
As educators, it is easy to get caught up in teaching to the test.  As AP teachers especially, this is incredibly difficult to not focus our efforts solely on students passing their AP exam in May.  In this blogpost, I write about why I don't care if my students pass the AP exam, and what goals I do have for my students instead.

3 comments

  1. Though I have been teaching this course for several years, my philosophy is the same....high scores are just icing on the cake. I want students to become better independent thinkers. Even my students who only score a 2 leave the class with new skills to apply as they move on to the next stage in their lives.
    Hope your students did well on the test this past year!

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    1. YES! Couldn't agree more. All except one passed (and he at least made a 2!) which was encouraging, but still not the ultimate. The best result was hearing from my students how all of their friends at other schools couldn't keep up with the pace of the exam and felt like it didn't cover any of the content they had learned, whereas my students were prepped that the test is way more about skill than content memorization. Those questions nearly give you everything you need background wise to find the answer!

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